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An unexpected job offer finds zoologist Eric Phillips transported from the elephant house at a zoo just outside London to the wildlife reserves in the South African bushveld. Being able to work with his own herd of elephants, and analysing their behaviour, more than makes up for the remote nature of the research station. The one bright spot on the horizon, quite literally if the sun hits it at the right angle, is the silver freight plane that brings his supplies and half an hour in the company of Tyaan, the gorgeous but taciturn pilot.
With wide open spaces and clear skies, Tyaan Bouwer is never be happier than when he’s flying over the bushveld, the landscape beneath him a changing vista of colour and texture. It’s that view and the freedom to be able to climb in his plane and fly that’s kept him in the small town where he was born and raised. South Africa might be a rainbow nation but in the northern regions where neighbouring countries are far from liberal minded, prejudices and hatred bleed across the borders. Tyaan’s not in the closet, not really. Get him to the city and with his strong, silent routine he can pull a guy without even trying. He’s fine with that as long as they don’t press him into trying to see them again. It’s not like he wants a relationship. And just maybe when he gets home he’s hovering in the doorway of that closet, but he’s never met anyone worth taking the risk for.
The day he’s sent to Limpopo to collect Eric that all changes. He tries to bury the feelings of want that Eric conjures in him, but he can’t resist the bonds of friendship that forms between them.
As a zoologist Eric likes to think that he’s adept at anticipating how a creature will react in any given situation, and they don’t come any more beautiful and skittish than Tyaan. Despite Tyaan’s jittery behaviour Eric has a theory they could be good together but when things go catastrophically wrong it appears their relationship will remain a theory unproven.
As he studied the outer skin of the fuselage for missing rivets and any other manner of unseen defects, a pair of dusty leather boots appeared on the cargo ramp. The measured stride they belonged to was solid and confident, and in no time at all, a man appeared. Tall and tanned, he stooped slightly to avoid any contact with the body of the aircraft, and then grabbing a clipboard from atop a box, he hunkered down in the midst of the crates.
As Eric watched, the man studied the labels and then made a mark on the paperwork attached to the clipboard. Blond hair peeked out from under his hat, fanning out on the collar of his shirt. At no point did he acknowledge the existence of the car, even though he couldn’t have failed to have heard its arrival.
Irrationally annoyed by the well-built blond and his off-putting manner, Eric pushed himself off the car and sauntered round to the other side of the vehicle, closer to the man who was busying himself with his work and ignoring Eric.
His shadow fell across the crates and the bowed head of the— Could this be the pilot? Eric could see no other people near the aircraft. The blond raised his head, a frown pulling the skin tight between his eyebrows.
The man’s gaze settled on Eric briefly before flicking over to the taxi. When he returned to look over Eric once more, the skin of his forehead had smoothed out, but still the man didn’t smile. He nodded in acknowledgement, just once, short and curt, and then dipped his head back to his work and turned slightly away from Eric. With the stranger squatting in the dust, Eric towered above him, the position giving him the perfect view of broad shoulders and a solid frame that Eric couldn’t resist studying.
Abruptly, the man stood and cleared his throat. He dropped the clipboard onto a nearby box, throwing a curious glance in Eric’s direction, and then disappeared back up the ramp. Eric blinked, self-conscious at having been caught blatantly staring, and ruffled a hand through his short dark hair. His embarrassment wasn’t sufficient to keep him from trailing after the man, though, stopping just short of following him into the aircraft to stand near the ramp in the shade of the fuselage.
Preparing to ask the stranger his name, Eric opened his mouth to speak, when he was interrupted by a doleful bleat. Startled, he glanced over his shoulder, scanning the airfield expecting to find signs of a wayward sheep. The forlorn stuttering cry came again, and Eric whipped back round, suspiciously eyeing a crate that was securely strapped to the internal wall of the plane.
“Goat,” said the pilot—Eric had decided that’s what he was—as he came back down the ramp.
The deep timbre of that one word surprised Eric. It was rough and low, with an unfamiliar accent Eric’s subconscious demanded to hear more of. That wasn’t likely to happen, though, because the pilot was already surveying his cargo with his back to Eric. He bent to hoist a crate into his arms, leaving Eric to stare dry-mouthed at the enticing pull of khaki for several seconds. Then the pilot straightened and carried the crate into the plane.
Eric wondered if he should offer to help, but despite the ease with which the crate had been hefted into the air, Eric thought they would probably be too heavy and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself. Not in front of this man.
The blond wore the almost obligatory light khaki bush clothes similar to his own uniform The Foundation had provided. Eric hadn’t noticed a logo on his shirt, but he could hope. If this man worked for The Foundation, Eric could at least enjoy the view, since it was unlikely he was gay. He hadn’t even looked twice at Eric. Not that Eric considered himself drop-dead gorgeous or anything, but he was used to getting his fair share of interest back home in England.
Eric caught a glimpse of Akibo gesticulating wildly at the cab driver. His holdalls were piled at Akibo’s feet, Eric noticed thankfully. At least if the altercation didn’t go well and the cab driver took off, he wouldn’t abscond with Eric’s luggage.
The hollow echo of footfalls on the ramp drew Eric’s attention back to the pilot. Tiredness was pulling on Eric’s nerves, leaving him out of sorts, and the lack of conversation was doing nothing to ease his irritability.
Taking the bull by the horns, Eric graced the pilot with the brightest smile he could muster. “So, do you work for The Foundation too?”
“No.” The man’s stride didn’t even falter as he continued toward the next crate.
Not chatty, then. Downright rude, in fact.
The firm slap of a hand on his back caught him just off centre, almost pitching him forward, and Akibo’s fingers curled over his shoulder and squeezed.
“I see you’ve met Tyaan. Tyaan Bouwer. He’s the local freight pilot. He’ll run your supplies into the research station every week.”
It was almost as if the pilot finally saw Eric as anything other than an annoyance for the first time. Tyaan stepped toward him, straightening to his full height, and Eric resisted the urge to check out the breadth of his chest, instead raising his gaze the few inches’ difference in their height to meet Tyaan’s eyes head-on.
“Tyaan, this is Eric. Eric Philips. He’s the new researcher out at olifant velde.” Akibo turned back to Eric. “That’s the local name for your part of the reserve. It means elephant fields.”
“Howzit.” Tyaan stuck out his hand. Eric extended his own automatically, and Tyaan pressed their palms together, enveloping Eric’s fingers in warmth. He gave Eric’s hand a short, sharp shake before releasing him from the firm grip. “The elephant man, hey?”
Eric smiled. “I know I’m no oil painting, but I hope I’m not that bad.”
Tyaan’s top-to-toe appraisal was so fleeting that Eric thought he’d imagined it. An expression skittered across the pilot’s face. Interest, curiosity—Eric wasn’t sure. It manifested itself as a bright spark in his eyes and the faint quirk of his lips, as if he were biting the inside of his cheek. The look vanished before Eric could really work out what it meant, but the amber-coloured eyes still seemed to hold a welcome within them.
“Tyaan’s a man of few words, but you won’t find a finer bush pilot. He’s reliable too. He’ll never leave you wanting.”
Wanting. Despite the pilot’s brusque manner, Eric wasn’t surprised he already wanted to press Tyaan up against the shiny metal body of his plane.
“I’m going up front,” Akibo said, blissfully unaware of the thoughts rampaging through Eric’s head. At least Eric hoped that was the case, since he followed that statement with “Coming, Eric?”
In his dreams, maybe.
“It’s hot enough to fry boerewors in there.” Tyaan shifted his attention away from Eric and addressed Akibo. “Leave the doors open. I’ll only be a few more minutes.”
Eric eyed the pile of sacks sitting in the dirt. More like half an hour. Tyaan’s shoulder and back muscles shifted beneath his shirt as he hefted a sack onto his shoulder and took another one in each hand. The tendons flexed and released in his bare forearms from where he grasped the corners of the sacks tightly.
Realising he was being spoken to, Eric dragged his attention from the large vein that was running up from Tyaan’s wrist to elbow. “No, I’ll stay out here for a moment. Not used to the heat yet.”
Akibo nodded and, shifting his document bag to the other shoulder, headed toward the front of the plane, leaving Eric with the pilot and an awkward silence.
When Tyaan completed several trips into the plane and the silence had stretched on beyond what Eric could bear—although Tyaan didn’t appear bothered by it—Eric groped for something to say. He waited until Tyaan reached the top of the ramp, not wanting to startle him with his latest pile of precariously balanced sacks.
“It’s an unusual name.” Then Eric added as an afterthought, “Tyaan.”
Blithering idiot! As if the man didn’t know his own name.
Tyaan lowered the sack from his shoulder and placed it with the others. The pile outside the plane was already half the size it had been. Maybe the pilot had been right in his estimate. He pushed his hat back, swiped his arm across his brow and looked at Eric as if he’d just asked him whether he preferred to top or bottom.
“Oh. So, do you speak Afrikaans?” A worrying thought started gnawing at Eric. “Do they speak it in the town?”
“Sure. I had to, my grandfather refused to speak English. Most people speak English with the odd word thrown in. You’ll get used to it.”
Tyaan returned to his sacks, the conversation obviously over. But Eric wasn’t ready to give up. He liked that gravel-edged sound that emanated from Tyaan’s lips. He could almost see the vibration beneath pale bristles on the pilot’s throat and itched to place his fingers there to feel the movement.
“I like your plane.” Eric cast his gaze over the large silver plane he was standing next to. “Looks like the one in that Indiana Jones movie. You know, the one where they fall out of the plane in the life raft. Temple of Doom, that’s the one…”
His voice trailed off as he became aware that Tyaan had stopped hefting sacks and was just staring, hands on his hips, his expression open and amused.
“It’s not that old. That movie was set in 1935. This is a de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou. They didn’t start making these until 1958…”
So that was how to get the reticent man talking, Eric realised as he allowed the low rumble to drift over him in a reassuring array of facts and figures. Get him on the subject of his plane. There was no question this aircraft was loved and well cared-for and Eric no longer had any qualms about climbing aboard.
“…but you don’t really want to know all that. I’m just boring you.”
“No.” I could listen to you talk all day long. “It’s fascinating.”
Evidently Tyaan had run out of words. He shrugged and turned his attention back to his cargo. “It’s old, but you’re safe in my hands. I promise you that.”
Eric didn’t doubt it; he just hoped one day he might get the chance to find out.
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